Brian F. Kelcey: Canada should stop enabling Putin's propaganda show
There isn't a lot we can do to help Ukraine during this crisis. But here's an easy thing we can do to help ourselves.
By: Brian F. Kelcey
Whenever someone asks governments to do more, tax more or spend more to stop an undesirable behaviour, my first reaction is to check and see if we can stop enabling or subsidizing the bad behaviour first. You can even apply that formula to Russia’s endless threats and acts of aggression against the Ukrainian people. If Canada wants to do more to oppose those threats, we could start by cutting off the help we give to the Russian propaganda network that broadcasts them.
RT — short for “Russia Today” — is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state-run propaganda network. “This is not the CBC or the BBC we're talking about … its deliberate mission is to politically undermine or destabilize Western countries … and to sow and encourage societal divisions.” Those aren’t my words. That’s Peter Van Loan, a former Tory MP and previous Harper government House Leader, in 2017. The U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center specifically cited RT as a Russian government propaganda effort in a new report released just days ago. Other outlets, from the Guardian to Politico, have also been clear what RT is: a Russian-government propaganda machine. RT’s 24-hour English-language news service is so beholden to Putin’s autocratic national agenda that the U.S. Department of Justice told RT to register employees as foreign agents in 2017, mid-way through the Trump Presidency.
RT isn’t a real news network, but it’s meant to look and sound like one. It’s slick, but subtle. Just as “Tokyo Rose” broadcasts in the Second World War drew American soldiers and sailors to listen with superb playlists of popular music, RT airs its newsgrifts alongside softer stories on sports, technology, celebrity and business, so viewers can swallow it like a sugar-coated medicine.
Ukraine is a common scapegoat for RT propaganda, but the newest genre of RT maliciousness is in its COVID coverage. In a long campaign of multilingual Orwellian doublespeak, RT’s Russian-language domestic service regularly pushes viewers to take the country’s Sputnik V vaccine. Meanwhile, to Western audiences in Western languages, RT repeatedly undermines vaccination and boosts the profile of COVID skeptics. To put it another way, RT is in the business of telling us that COVID should infect and kill as many Westerners as possible, even as it sells the message that it should infect or kill as few Russians as possible.
So it’s no accident that Germany banned a German-language RT network in 2021 for broadcasting without a license. Hell, even YouTube banned RT Deutsch for COVID misinformation in late 2021, which is like “handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500,” to steal Apocalypse Now’s analogy. Latvia and Lithuania banned RT in 2020 to augment EU sanctions against Russia, while British regulators fined RT hundreds of thousands of pounds for violating impartial broadcast rules in 2019.
Meanwhile, in Canada, we don’t just allow RT to broadcast their agitprop. Here, our welcome mat is crimson red. Canadian Radio-Television Commission (CRTC) rules make it a privilege to get cable carriage in this country, and RT gets that privilege — even though several Canadian and foreign networks of varying quality have been denied it in years past. If I wanted to subscribe to any of the three TV packages available in my neighbourhood through a local provider, I’d automatically get RT bundled in. A 2017 Globe and Mail story reported that RT was even paying Canadian cable firms to include them in basic channel bundles to maximize their reach. As a result, millions of Canadians are now paid subscribers to Putin’s personal news playlist.
So if Ottawa is looking for ways to demonstrate its opposition to Putin’s regime and its aggression in Ukraine, finding some legislative path to cut RT’s cable access is a logical option. I am (to put it mildly) not the first person to propose this. While pulling RT from cable packages in Kitchener isn’t exactly going to keep Russian T-80 tanks from driving on Kharkiv, at least it will reduce the odds that gullible Canadian channel surfers will swallow Russian propaganda about the Russian Army’s activities at the viewer’s expense.
Some careless readers will see this as proposal for censorship. Far from it. I believe that even if NATO ended up in a hot war with Russia tomorrow morning, RT’s misinformation and insinuations should be available to stream via the web or social media. One of Britain’s successes in the Second World War was adopting the principle of fighting fiction with fact, minimizing the heavy hand of censorship. Listeners in wartime Britain were discouraged from listening to Nazi propaganda broadcasts, but they were still free to do so. Hearing the contrast between the grim, hardboiled reporting of the BBC and Germany’s ridiculous claims boosted public support during the war’s toughest moments.
If we extend that analogy — ideally without the global war part — then the weakness in our RT policy is obvious. It was a democratic and sound policy for Britain to avoid banning German radio even as German planes bombed London in 1940. But Canada’s current policy toward the RT now isn’t like that at all. It’s more like we’ve invited Mr. Goebbels and Radio Berlin to share the BBC’s transmitters, too, just to be sure they get that much closer to the people they’re trying to con.
Ottawa is already taking several steps to assist Ukraine at this pivotal moment. We’ve offered help to build an ammunition factory so Ukraine can supply troops domestically (although that may happen too late at this point). We’ve offered economic help, which matters since Russia’s constant threats to destroy Ukraine create significant financial uncertainty. We’ve deployed troops to train Ukrainian soldiers. We are mulling sending weapons. And so on.
Many of the additional steps we could take to help Ukraine now would inevitably be small or symbolic. And that’s okay, because the availability of small and symbolic policy steps should make the choice to act on them even easier. Putting an end to a ridiculous situation where the CRTC is effectively a rubber stamp for Putin’s propaganda machine is surely one example. And cutting off “Russia Today” from Canadian cable is as much about doing less harm to ourselves as it is about helping our friends abroad. Which is all the more reason why we should already be doing it — today.
Brian Kelcey is a public policy consultant in Winnipeg.
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